The Fort Donelson Campaign Begins

Word spread quickly throughout the North that the Federals had won an impressive victory by capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, leading the army, and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, leading the navy, had done well working in concert, which laid the foundation for future joint operations on the western rivers. General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, overall Federal commander, wrote to Grant’s superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck: “Please thank Grant and Foote and their commands for me.”

Andrew H. Foote and Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Northerners were suddenly optimistic about victory after a winter of doubt. The Chicago Tribune reported that the action at Fort Henry was “one of the most complete and signal victories in the annals of the world’s warfare.” According to the New York Times, “Talk of peace and a restoration of the Union has revived with the taking of Fort Henry.” The correspondent for the New York Tribune wrote, “A few more events such as the capture of Fort Henry, and the war will be substantially at an end.”

Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, the Confederate commander at Fort Henry, was now Grant’s prisoner. Grant allowed Tilghman to send a report to his superiors, in which he acknowledged “the courtesy and consideration shown by Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant and Commander Foote.” Grant and his staff hosted their prisoner for dinner, and a Confederate prisoner saw Grant as a “modest, amiable, kindhearted but resolute man.” Proving the prisoner right, Grant immediately set out to follow up the victory at Fort Henry by capturing another fort.

On the same day that Henry fell, Grant called his officers to a meeting in the ladies’ cabin of the gunboat U.S.S. Tigress, which served as Grant’s headquarters. Grant wanted to discuss the feasibility of attacking and capturing Fort Donelson, 12 miles east of Fort Henry on the Cumberland River. Brigadier General Lew Wallace, one of Grant’s subordinates (and future author of Ben-Hur), later recalled, “The question for consideration, gentlemen, is whether we shall march against Fort Donelson or wait for reinforcements. I should like to have your views.”

Brigadier General C.F. Smith, Grant’s highest-ranking subordinate, spoke first: “There is every reason why we should move without a loss of a day.” Brigadier General John A. McClernand, an Illinois politician before the war, agreed with Smith but then read a prepared statement offering advice on how it should be done. According to Wallace, “The proceeding smacked of a political caucus, and I thought both Grant and Smith grew restive before the paper was finished.” After McClernand finished, Wallace said, “Let us go, by all means, the sooner the better.”

Grant then announced, “We will set out immediately. Orders will be sent you. Get your commands ready.” Wallace wrote that Grant had most likely already decided what he would do before the meeting: “There is evidence that he had already determined upon the movement.”

The next day, the New York Tribune correspondent wrapped up his coverage of the capture of Fort Henry and stopped at Grant’s headquarters to bid farewell. Grant said, “You had better wait a day or two… I am going over to capture Fort Donelson tomorrow.” When the reporter asked whether Grant knew how strong the fort was, Grant said, “Not exactly, but I think we can take it; at all events, we can try.”

Grant, his staff, and a cavalry escort rode over to reconnoiter Fort Donelson that day. The fort was near the town of Dover and the Kentucky border. The Confederate garrison at Donelson was much stronger than that at Henry, with about 15,000 troops and more heavy artillery. The fort was also larger than Henry, with an outer defensive perimeter of 100 acres and two lines of entrenchments. And it was positioned atop a bluff, where 13 guns commanded the naval approaches, and surrounded by hills, which made land assaults difficult. Each flank was protected by a flooded creek.

Donelson held logistical importance because it was 30 miles down the Cumberland from Clarksville, a vital railroad town connecting the Confederate line across Kentucky. If Donelson could be captured, Clarksville would be vulnerable to capture as well, and destroying the railroad bridge at Clarksville would break the connection the Confederates needed if they expected to continue to hold Kentucky. Halleck instructed Grant on February 8 to try to destroy that bridge if possible. Still mistrustful of Grant’s abilities, Halleck then informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that “an experienced officer of high rank is wanted immediately on the Tennessee line.”

Grant planned to start mobilizing on the 8th, but he was delayed by bad weather. The next day, Grant and his staff conducted another reconnaissance of the fort. It was clear that Donelson was much more heavily fortified than Henry, but Grant had learned that the garrison was commanded by Brigadier General Gideon Pillow. Pillow had come over from Clarksville to take command, and he announced that he had faith in “the courage and fidelity of the brave officers and men under his command.” He urged them to “drive back the ruthless invaders from our soil and again raise the Confederate flag over Fort Henry… Our battle cry, ‘Liberty or death.’”

Despite this rhetoric and Donelson’s strength, Grant did not expect him to put up much of a fight. He later wrote, “I had known General Pillow in Mexico, and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any intrenchments he was given to hold.”

Grant may have been ready to advance on Fort Donelson, but Flag Officer Foote’s gunboat flotilla was not. Foote had sent his damaged vessels back to Cairo, Illinois, for quick repairs before they could return to action. The U.S.S. Essex was badly damaged, and the U.S.S. Cincinnati needed repairs as well. Foote was finally ready to move out on the 11th, and he notified Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

“I leave Cairo again to-night with the Louisville, Pittsburg, and St. Louis for the Cumberland River to cooperate with the army in the attack on Ft. Donelson… I shall do all in my power to render the gunboats effective in the fight, although they are not properly manned… If we could wait ten days, and I had men, I would go with eight mortar boats and six armored boats and conquer.”

Meanwhile, a disruption in the telegraph line caused a rift in communication between Grant and Halleck. Grant had not received Halleck’s instruction to leave an occupation force at Fort Henry and destroy the railroad bridge at Clarksville, and Halleck had not received (or approved) Grant’s plan for attacking Fort Donelson. The communication gap between Halleck and Grant would play a significant role in future operations.

On the Confederate side, Generals John B. Floyd and Simon B. Buckner at Clarksville began sending troops from that town to bolster the Fort Donelson defenses. However, Floyd and Buckner agreed to only send a minimum number of troops so they could focus their true strength at Cumberland City, 15 miles upriver from the fort. This would protect the line to Nashville and enable the Confederates to harass the Federal lines between Forts Henry and Donelson.

Buckner met with Pillow at Donelson to explain this strategy, but Pillow refused to go along with it because it sounded too much like how Fort Henry was lost. Buckner later recounted that Pillow and Floyd believed that a Federal 12-mile march from Henry to Donelson was “impracticable.” While the Confederate generals debated, Grant’s troops were about to start heading toward them.

By the 11th, Halleck had finally received word that Grant and Foote intended to advance on Fort Donelson. Federal reinforcements were steadily arriving at Fort Henry and were being added to the Donelson campaign. Brigadier General George W. Cullum, Halleck’s chief of staff, was sent to Cairo to oversee the troop transfer, with instructions to “push forward the Cumberland expedition with all possible dispatch… Time now is everything for us. Don’t delay one instant.”

Grant had also received Halleck’s orders to hold Fort Henry while targeting Clarksville by this time. Grant replied, “Every effort will be put forth to have Clarksville in a few days.” Halleck wrote to Foote, “You have gained great distinction by your capture of Fort Henry. Everybody recognizes your services. Make your name famous in history by the capture of Fort Donelson and Clarksville. The taking of these places is a military necessity. Delay adds strength to them more than to us. Act quickly, even though only half ready.”

Grant now had three divisions, one more than he had at Fort Henry. The two divisions under Smith and McClernand, totaling about 15,000 men, prepared to move out. McClernand’s Federals would march along both the Telegraph and Ridge roads leading to Fort Donelson. Smith’s division would move along the Telegraph road. The third division under Wallace would stay behind to garrison Fort Henry but would be on alert to join the advance if needed.

On the morning of the 12th, Grant informed Halleck, “We start this morning for Fort Donelson in heavy force. Four regiments from Buell’s command and two from St. Louis arrived last night and were sent around by water. I hope to send you a dispatch from Fort Donelson tomorrow.” Halleck, still having doubts about Grant’s abilities, contacted Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio from Louisville, and asked him, “Why not come down and take the immediate command of the Cumberland column yourself?” Buell did not reply, so to Halleck’s dismay, Grant would have to do.

The march would be made under what Wallace called “a day of summer. River, land, and sky fairly shimmered with warmth. Overcoats were encumbrances.” To quicken their advance, the men brought no tents or other equipment that they considered unnecessary.

The Federal advance went as planned until the men encountered Confederate cavalry led by Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. The cavalry stalled the Federals for several hours before finally riding off. The Federals approached Fort Donelson and formed a semicircle among the hills around the fort and the nearby town of Dover. Grant set up headquarters in a farmhouse kitchen, sent word for Wallace’s division to join him, and planned to attack the fortifications as soon as Foote’s gunboats arrived.

Meanwhile, Pillow had left Donelson to discuss strategy with Floyd at Clarksville. Before he could get there, Pillow heard the sound of cannon at the fort and hurried back. The Federals’ arrival meant that Buckner’s plan to fortify Cumberland City would have to be abandoned in favor of making a stand at Donelson. This was just what Pillow had wanted in the first place. Pillow telegraphed both Floyd and General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater:

“We shall have a battle in the morning, I think certainly, and an attack by gun-boats. The enemy are all around my position and within distance to close in with me in ten minutes’ march. One gun-boat came today and fired fifteen or twenty shells and retired. We gave no reply. I have sent up to Cumberland City for Baldwin’s two regiments. Feel sanguine of victory, though I am not fully ready. I have done all that it was possible to do, and think I will drive back the enemy.”


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